I caught up with Millennials’ dining habits quite by accident in a recent phone conversation with my daughter Celia. We often talk about what we’ve been cooking, and she mentioned she had prepared overnight oats for supper. What? Had she forgotten to eat breakfast that morning? She heard the disbelief in my voice and described what amounts to an instant meal in a Mason jar.
I was amazed to learn that oatmeal had escaped its morning niche to become a popular homemade carryout meal. It consists of rolled oats mixed with a few chia seeds, layered in a Mason jar with fruit at the bottom and on top. Milk of any variety is added to moisten the oats. Yogurt and honey are recommended add-ins.
Although there’s no cooking involved, overnight oats is not a source of immediate gratification. The oats take at least four hours to absorb the milk in the refrigerator, so it ends up being an overnight process. A video link Celia sent me showed how to plan a week's worth of meals choosing a different fruit combination for each day of the week. Open the refrigerator on Wednesday and look for the jar with strawberries and bananas. That’s the instant part.
As hard as I tried to imagine the pleasures of eating of cold, uncooked rolled oats, my mind kept defaulting to soggy cardboard. When I shared my reaction with Celia, she assured me the consistency of overnight oats is closer to that of rice pudding. There was only one way to find out. I had to give it a try
Measuring and pouring ingredients into a Mason jar felt like lab work rather than cooking. In this scientific mood, I recalled all the outrageously healthful properties of oats. It has more soluble fiber than any other plus beta-glucan that makes it so effective in lowering blood cloresterol, regulating blood sugar and boosting the immune system. What’s not to like?
The next day I chose to sit on a shaded bench in the park to enjoy my chilled jar of overnight oats for lunch. All the ingredients tasted as I predicted they would. The oats were disappointingly thick, sticky and flavorless. I wished I had added more honey and was grateful for the texture from the fruit.
That evening I prepared a pot of old-fashioned oatmeal with steel cut oats. I simmered them for four minutes in boiling water, took the pot off the heat, covered and left it at room temperature overnight. The grains were plump, tender with a slight al dente finish by morning. A quick reheating in the microwave renewed their comforting scent of toasted grain that invited a sprinkling of brown sugar, sliced banana and cold milk.
Overnight oats may not be the first riff on a humble grain that’s been the staple start to the day since antiquity. It’s best known previous reincarnation was Bircher Muesli, a health cereal created around 1900 by the Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Brenner. At every meal he treated recovering tuberculosis patients to a buffet of raw grated apples, rolled oats, dried fruit and nuts with a side of yogurt.
So, would you like your oatmeal soaked overnight in milk, cooked in water or dry with yogurt?